A falling out among friends?

The investigation into that fatal (the death toll is now 107) crane collapse last Friday in Mecca has a target: the Saudi Binladin Group:

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman sanctioned the powerful Saudi Binladin Group Tuesday over the collapse of a construction crane at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, which killed more than 100 people days before the hajj pilgrimage.

An investigative commission had concluded that the company “was in part responsible” for Friday’s tragedy, which killed at least 107 people and injured almost 400 during a severe thunderstorm accompanied by violent winds.

The company had not “respected the norms of safety” at the site, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

The SBG is barred from taking on new public projects, and its executives are barred from leaving the country, until the legal process has fully worked itself out.

This may not amount to anything, but it’s worth noting for a couple of reasons. First, of course, the “Binladin” in “Saudi Binladin Group” is Osama bin Laden’s family; he was the son of family patriarch Mohammed bin Laden and his tenth wife. Second, it will be interesting to see if Salman’s move affects the deep, long-standing ties between the royal family and the Bin Ladens.

Mohammed bin Laden built his construction company in the 1930s really from scratch (if it weren’t for Osama and the sketchy ties to the Saudi royals, Mohammed would be a real example of a rags to riches story) into a behemoth, initially by taking on small projects (like road construction) for the royal family that large foreign construction firms considered too minor to be worth their time. Today SBG is the second biggest construction company in the world; at one point it held the exclusive rights to make renovations on all three of the holiest sites in Islam: the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Mohammed built a very close friendship with Saudi King Faisal (r. 1964-1975), to the point that Bin Laden could actually get away with playing practical jokes on the king. Part of the reason for this is that Mohammed was the kingdom’s lender of last resort in the 60s. When Faisal deposed his brother and predecessor, Saud, in 1964, the kingdom’s treasury was virtually empty (thanks to Saud’s profligacy), and its credit with international bankers was shot. Mohammed stepped in and floated the money to keep the kingdom running. He didn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart; in return, Faisal gave Bin Laden’s company exclusive rights to any renovation projects on religious sites that were funded by the Saudis, both inside the kingdom and abroad. So Riyadh and the SBG have been joined at the hip for a very long time. If those ties fray over this disaster, it will be interesting to see what comes of it.

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